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NRO Gifts NASA Two Leftover Space Telescopes, Euclid to Cost NASA $40-50 Million, GEMS Not Confirmed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Jun-2012 (Updated: 04-Jun-2012 09:55 PM)

NASA revealed today that the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) gave it two leftover space telescopes.  NASA is looking at using one of them and must determine how much it would cost to build, launch and operate a spacecraft that would incorporate it.  NASA also must decide what other instruments may be needed to achieve the scientific objectives in the most recent National Research Council (NRC) decadal survey for astronomy and astrophysics.

NASA astrophysics division director Paul Hertz told a meeting of the NRC's Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics (CAA) about the gift this morning.   His short talk was followed by a more lengthy explanation by Dr. Alan Dressler of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution.  Dressler chaired the panel of the NRC's 2010 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey, New Worlds, New Horizons (NWNH), that recommended a mission called the Wide-Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST) as the top priority for a large space mission for the next decade of space-based astrophysics research. 

WFIRST is a multi-purpose telescope that would study dark energy, search for exoplanets, and survey the universe in the infrared wavelengths.  Budget constraints exacerbated by significant overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have pushed WFIRST well into the 2020s.  

NRO builds and operates the nation's spy satellites.  NASA officials said today that NRO contacted the agency over a year ago to see if NASA wanted the two 2.4 meter diameter space-qualified telescopes because they were no longer needed.  NASA said yes and the telescopes are now its property.  They have been declassified, but are still subject to export control restrictions.  Although NASA inherited two telescopes, it is only talking about using one, at least for now.   Hertz said they are calling it the NEW mission -- NWNH Enabling Wide-field -- with the idea that it could enable the science envisioned in New Worlds, New Horizons for a wide-field infrared telescope.

Dressler was one of a small group of scientists asked by NASA to review the potential of achieving the science objectives of WFIRST by using one of the NRO telescopes.  The study group also included CAA co-chair David Spergel.  WFIRST was designed as a 1.5 meter diameter telescope, while the NRO telescopes are 2.4 meters.  Dressler said that NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory have known about the telescopes for some time and several mission designs have emerged.   For him, the starting point would be to use the mirrors as they currently exist, although he expressed a strong preference for adding a coronograph to the mission.  He said that his preliminary answer is that an NRO-based mission could accomplish the WFIRST science goals perhaps better than WFIRST itself.   While stressing that more work is needed, he expressed his personal view that "the potential exists to have greater capability for the WFIRST science, enable additional scientific opportunities, match or reduce cost, and improve schedule, and that this possibility should be pursued as vigorously as possible by the astronomical community."

The NRC conducts Decadal Surveys for each of NASA's space and earth science disciplines.  Performed every 10 years, they look out to the next 10 years (hence the term decadal) to determine the most compelling scientific questions and what missions are needed to answer them within a budget envelope NASA provides.  Because they represent a consensus of the relevant discipline, they are closely followed by NASA and highly respected by Congress.  The NRC has standing committees that keep track of what NASA (and other agencies as appropriate) are doing to achieve the Decadal Survey's recommendations.   CAA oversees compliance with the astronomy and astrophysics Decadal Survey, which also includes recommendations to the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The CAA's response to the news was rather muted.  The reaction was surprisingly flat for a community that received a fairly valuable gift.  At a media teleconference later in the day, NASA's Michael Moore, deputy astrophysics division director, estimated that about $250 million in mission costs could be avoided by using one of the NRO telescopes.  He added that the telescopes cost about $75,000-$100,000 to store at the manfacturer's (ITT Excelis) facilities in Rochester, NY.   In response to a question at the media teleconference, Hertz said he thought CAA members were "excited at the possibilities," while Dressler acknowledged that some people "need to have a lot more time" to consider the situation.  This is a "sharp right turn," he added, compared to what was recommended in NWNH.

Some CAA members wanted to know if NASA should now reconsider its participation in the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Euclid mission, apparently on the assumption that with the gift of the telescopes NASA might be able to move out more quickly with a WFIRST-like mission.  Euclid will study dark energy, which also is one of the goals of the WFIRST mission.   Hertz said that NASA was already committed to its participation in Euclid.   In fact, he informed the committee that the cost of NASA's contribution to Euclid will be $40-50 million instead of $20 million as recommended by another NRC committee.   NASA agreed to provide near infra-red detectors for Euclid, but ESA convinced NASA that it also needed the associated electronics, which increased the cost to NASA.

Hertz also emphasized repeatedly that NASA currently does not have the money to build, launch and operate a spacecraft that would use one of the NRO telescopes.   The telescope may be free, but NASA must pay for everything else.  Launch of JWST is an agency priority and until that happens, the budget for astrophysics at NASA is highly constrained.   Hertz also stressed that obtaining permission from the White House and Congress for NASA to begin another large mission like JWST should not be taken for granted.   Until NASA demonstrates that it can complete JWST on its new baseline budget and schedule, he does not expect policy-makers to have confidence that NASA can perform on time and cost.

Separately, Hertz told the committee that NASA had "not confirmed" the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism (GEMS) Small Explorer mission because it experienced unacceptable cost increases during its early formulation stage.  NASA missions must pass through certain "gates," one of which is a confirmation review.  GEMS did not pass that gate.  NASA will reallocate those funds for other Explorer missions.

Editor's Note:  Although the announcement about the NRO telescopes came as a surprise to many, at least two news outlets - the New York Times and Washington Post -- clearly were told about it earlier.   Each published stories including quotes from people who were not at the CAA meeting very shortly after Hertz spoke.  NASA also did not inform all journalists about the media teleconference.  SpacePolicyOnline.com thanks NASAWatch for publicizing it.

Landsat 5 Thermal Imager Kaput, But MSS Resurrected

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Jun-2012 (Updated: 04-Jun-2012 06:38 PM)

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) gave up on its attempts to restore daily image transmissions from Landsat 5's Thematic Mapper (TM) thermal imaging instrument.  Launched by NASA in 1984, the satellite is decades past its design lifetime so an instrument failure is hardly unexpected.  Yet there also is good news.  Landsat 5's other instrument, a Multi-Spectral Scanner (MSS), was brought back to life, so the spacecraft will continue to return data, albeit of less quality.

The Landsat program has experienced a tumultous programmatic history since the first satellite, then called ERTS-1, was launched in 1972.  The program celebrates its 40th anniversary on July 23.   NASA successfully launched Landsat 1-5.  An attempt to privatize the system failed in the early 1980s for many reasons including a launch vehicle malfunction that sent Landsat 6 to a watery grave in the Pacific Ocean.  The program was brought back into the government.  Landsat 7 was built and launched by NASA, but USGS took over operations of that satellite as well as Landsat 5.  NASA is building Landsat 8 (also called the Landsat Data Continuity Mission), with launch expected in January 2013.   The future of the program after that is up in the air.

USGS has been trying to restore the Landsat 5 TM since November when it suffered an electronics malfunction and daily image transmissions were suspended.  USGS said today that it will "attempt only a few additional image acquisitions over specific sensor-calibration sites as the TM transmitter nears complete failure."

In the meantime, USGS reactivated Landsat 5's MSS in a test mode after more than a decade of inactivity.  USGS Director Marcia McNutt said "the resurrection of the MSS a decade after it was last powered up and 25 years beyond its nominal lifespan is welcome news indeed."  The MSS has fewer spectral bands (it does not acquire thermal data) and lower pixel resolution, but is an insurance policy in case Landsat 7 fails before the new Landsat 8 is launched in January.  Landsat 7 is also well past its design lifetime.  Launched in 1999, it has a scan line error problem meaning that each image has a 22 percent loss of data.

Unlike the high resolution imagery obtained from commercial remote sensing satellites operated by GeoEye and DigitalGlobe, medium resolution Landsat data have little commercial value, but are highly valued by the scientific community and specialized users such as the agriculture industry.

USGS is sponsoring a contest to celebrate the Landsat program's 40th anniversary.  The deadline for submissions is Wednesday, June 6.

Events of Interest: Week of June 4-8, 2012

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Jun-2012 (Updated: 03-Jun-2012 06:09 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the coming week. The House and Senate both are in session.

During the Week

The space policy world returns to its routine this week after an exciting SpaceX mission that kept everyone's rapt attention from launch on May 22 to splashdown on May 31.  Dragon successfully returned to port in Los Angeles and flown to SpaceX's facilities near Waco, TX over the weekend.  The final objective to be met is turning the cargo it returned from the International Space Station (ISS) over to NASA.  A NASA official said on May 31 that he did not expect it to take long to agree on a launch date for the first of 12 Commercial Resupply Service (CRS) missions to ISS SpaceX is expected to provide to NASA between now and 2015.

In the more humdrum world of Washington space policy, however, there still are events of interest upcoming.   Among them are the first meeting of the rejuvenated National Research Council (NRC)'s Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics that will take place Monday-Wednesday.  A standing committee overseen jointly by the Space Studies Board and Board on Physics and Astronomy, CAA looks after ground- and space-based astronomy issues for the NRC in-between decadal surveys. 

Also of special interest, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee's Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee will hold a hearing on government indemnification of launch service providers.   The 1988 Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments created the original authority for the government to indemnify launch service providers from third party claims between $500 million and $2 billion.  The companies must get their own insurance for up to $500 million and over $2 billion.   The authority was granted for 5 years and has been repeatedly extended over the decades.  It is currently set to expire on December 31, 2012.   Each time the authority is up for renewal, Congress asks whether the launch service industry still requires indemnification.  To date, Congress has always agreed to extend the authority, usually on the basis that other countries indemnify their providers so U.S. companies must have the same protection in order to be competitive.  There has yet to be a third-party claim since there have been no commercial launch accidents that injured the general public.

Though it is not policy-related, don't miss the Venus Transit on June 5.  Be sure to get your special glasses out, or watch it on NASA TV.  This is the last time Venus will pass between Earth and the Sun until 2117, so for most us, this will be our last chance.  And for everyone interested is what's going on with the Sun and how it affects Earth, check out the Space Weather Enterprise Forum also on Tuesday.

Monday, June 4

Monday-Wednesday, June 4-6

Tuesday, June 5

  • Space Weather Enterprise Forum, National Press Club, Washington, DC, 8:00 am - 5:00 pm
  • Venus Transit (Venus passes between the Earth and the Sun), different times around the globe, NASA TV will host a special at 5:30 pm ET

Wednesday, June 6

 

NuSTAR Cleared for June 13 Launch

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Jun-2012 (Updated: 03-Jun-2012 04:47 PM)

NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) spacecraft and its Pegasus rocket successfully completed their June 1 Flight Readiness Review (FRR).  The spacecraft is due to be launched on June 13 from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific.

NASA held a press conference last week to discuss NuSTAR's status and scientific objectives, but the mission needed to pass the June 1 FRR before committing to the June 13 launch date.   Kennedy Space Center (@NASAKennedy) tweeted on June 1 that managers had given a go-ahead for the June 13 launch, though NASA's NuSTAR website still was not updated as of June 3.

Fiona Harrison of CalTech is NuSTAR's principal investigator.  The spacecraft is an x-ray telescope that will search for black holes.

Launch time is 11:30 am EDT on June 13.  NuSTAR will be launched by a Pegasus rocket, which is dropped from a carrier aircraft, so in this case "launch" is the time the L-1011 aircraft takes off from Kwajalein Atoll.  Kwajalein, in the Marshall Islands, is the site of a U.S. missile test range.   NuSTAR is departing from there because it is headed to an equatorial orbit. 

NuSTAR's original launch date of March 22 had to be postponed because further tests were needed to validate a new flight computer on the Pegasus rocket.  

Secretive Military X-37B Spaceplane Headed Back to Earth

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Jun-2012 (Updated: 01-Jun-2012 08:02 PM)

The Air Force's X-37B spaceplane is headed back to Earth in the next few days or weeks after more than a year in orbit.   What X-37B has been doing is unknown -- except in classified circles.

The Air Force's 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base revealed on May 30 that it is preparing for X-37B's landing in the early-to-mid June timeframe.  The exact date will "depend on technical and weather considerations," it said.

The Boeing-built winged spacecraft is formally called X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV).  OTV-1 was launched in 2010 and landed after 224 days.   This vehicle, OTV-2, was launched by an Atlas V rocket on March 5, 2011 for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.  Its mission, like that of OTV-1, is shrouded in secrecy.  It passed the one-year milestone more than two months ago. 

Photo Credit:  Boeing (via Spaceflightnow.com   http://www.spaceflightnow.com/news/n1012/12x37gallery/)

The Department of Defense (DOD) inherited the automated, reusable, winged spaceplane design from NASA in 2004.  NASA originally designed X-37 as a test vehicle intended to lead to an Orbital Space Plane (OSP).   A prime goal of the OSP program was to build a "crew return vehicle" for the International Space Station (ISS).   Launched to the ISS atop an Atlas V rocket, OSP would have remained attached to ISS and used as a lifeboat in an emergency.  Eventually it would have evolved into a taxi to take crews to and from the ISS.  NASA canceled its X-37 program in 2004 after President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration with a focus on returning astronauts to the Moon instead of long-term utilization of the ISS.  NASA pays Russia to provide ISS crew return services using Russia's Soyuz spacecraft.

X-37 found new life after being transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  It successfully tested an Approach and Landing Test Vehicle version and transferred the program to the Air Force in 2006. 

The classified nature of the OTV-1 and OTV-2 missions lends an air of mystery to these flights and prompts much speculation on the utility of such a vehicle, including whether it has a weapons capability though experts generally dismiss that notion.

 

Musk: "Welcome Home, Baby" as Dragon Mission Ends

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-May-2012 (Updated: 31-May-2012 05:45 PM)

As Elon Musk's Dragon spacecraft successfully splashed down in the Pacific Ocean this morning, he was thinking "welcome home, baby" as the mission came to a picture perfect ending.

International Space Station (ISS) astronauts using the robotic Canadarm2 detached Dragon from the ISS Harmony module at 4:05 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).   They released Dragon from Canadarm2 at 5:49 am EDT, a few minutes later than planned.  The spacecraft then performed a series of engine firings that put it on course for landing in the Pacific Ocean about 490 nautical miles southwest of Los Angeles.  It landed at 27 degrees North latitude, 120 degrees West longitude two minutes ahead of schedule at 11:42 am ET. 

 

Photo credit:  SpaceX:  https://twitter.com/SpaceX/status/208264591887712257/photo/1

During a post-landing news conference, Musk said the difference in landing times was due to the wind.   Dragon uses two drogue chutes and then three main chutes to slow its landing speed.  Musk emphasized his plans for future versions of Dragon to return to land instead of water, using propulsive landing systems.  He also stressed that this version of Dragon is capable of taking crews to and from the ISS, although launch abort systems and additional successful launches are needed before offering such services.   If someone had stowed away on Dragon, though, that person would have been OK, he said.  He hopes the success of this mission lends credence to the commercial crew program that has been struggling to win support in Congress. 

In response to a reporter's question about what he was thinking as Dragon floated in the ocean, he said his thoughts were "welcome home, baby. .... I feel really great, like seeing your kid come home."

Musk and NASA Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Manager Alan Lindenmoyer were clearly delighted that the mission went so smoothly.  Lindenmoyer said that two objectives still need to be met -- for NASA to see the cargo that was returned from the ISS and for that cargo to be delivered to the agency -- but he anticipates that SpaceX will be given the go ahead to begin routine Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) to the ISS very soon.

Although many media reports are crediting the Obama Administration for the commercial cargo program, it actually began under the George W. Bush Administration and then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin.  Griffin initiated the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program in 2006 as part of planning for the post-shuttle era.   COTS included a section (COTS-D) about the possibility of using commercial companies to launch people as well, but the concept ran into obstacles

In February 2010, however, President Obama embraced it wholeheartedly in NASA's FY2011 budget request that revealed his decision that NASA would no longer launch people to low Earth orbit (LEO) after the final shuttle flight.  Instead, the country would rely on the commercial sector, with substantial financial support from the government, to develop commercial crew as well as commercial cargo systems.  That decision, coupled with his cancellation of President Bush's Constellation program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 and someday send them to Mars, sparked a furor in Congress and started years of debate that is still ongoing.

The Dragon flight that ended today, however, certainly gives a boost to commercial cargo.   Questions may remain about the business aspects -- how much the government will have to pay for these services -- which raises the issue of when Orbital Sciences Corp. will be ready to compete with SpaceX.   Competition is envisioned as a way to keep prices down.  Orbital's Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft have not been launched yet, but NASA is hopeful they will be later this year.

Even though these are called "commercial" missions, a significant amount of taxpayer money is involved.  NASA spent about $800 million helping SpaceX and Orbital develop their commercial cargo systems.   In 2008, it contracted for 12 cargo Commercial Resupply Services missions from SpaceX and eight from Orbital.  A memo prepared by staff of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in May 2011 showed that NASA will spend $5.1 billion for ISS cargo services between FY2011 and FY2016.   Still, the government is expected to save money overall because the companies invested their own capital in system development, although the amount is not known publicly.

Lindenmoyer said today that NASA will need cargo services to the ISS through at least 2020 and he believes these systems will be useful for achieving other human space exploration goals.  "We must have strong partnerships" with the commercial industry, he said, "and I know there are opportunities that will fit well with this."

Dragon Begins Steps to Return to Earth - UPDATE 3 -- Dragon Lands in Pacific

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-May-2012 (Updated: 31-May-2012 11:44 AM)

UPDATE 3:  Dragon splashed down at 11:42 ET, two minutes earlier than scheduled.   Press conference at 2:00 pm ET; watch on NASA TV.

UPDATE 2:  Dragon successfully completed its deorbit burn and is now on course to land in the Pacific at 11:44 am ET, 490 nautical miles southwest of Los Angeles.

UPDATE:  Dragon has successfully departed from the ISS "keep out" zone.   It is scheduled to fire its engines for the deorbit burn at 10:51 am EDT and splash down at 11:44 am EDT.   NASA TV will resume its coverage of the mission at 10:15 EDT (not 10:45 as earlier announced).

ORIGINAL STORY: Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) demated the Dragon spacecraft from the ISS on schedule at 4:05 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) using Canadarm2 this morning.   Splashdown in the Pacific is expected at 11:44 am EDT.

A series of activities must take place between now and splashdown.   The most recent list of times for key events announced  via NASA TV include the following.  NASA TV uses Central Daylight Time (CDT) since the broadcast for this mission originates at Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, but they are converted here into EDT.

  • 5:35 am EDT, Dragon released by astronauts from Canadarm2
  • 5:36, 5:37 and 5:45 am EDT, three engine firings by Dragon
  • 5:46 am EDT, Dragon leaves sphere of integrated operations (i.e. the immediate vicinity of the ISS)
  • NASA TV will cease its coverage and resume at 10:45 am EDT
  • 10:51 am EDT, Dragon fires deorbit burn which lasts 9 minutes 50 seconds
  • 11:44 am ET, Dragon splashdown in Pacific Ocean 490 nautical miles southwest of Los Angeles

Follow the action on NASA TV or follow us on Twitter @SpcPlcyOnline.

Preparations Continue for Dragon Return to Earth on May 31-UPDATE 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-May-2012 (Updated: 30-May-2012 10:42 PM)

UPDATE 2:  Wednesday evening (May 30) NASA said via Twitter that NASA TV coverage would begin an hour earlier, at 2:30 am ET.  SpaceX also is reporting that splashdown will be at 11:44 am ET, a time that was earlier announced by NASA, but is later than what SpaceX indicated earlier today.  Stay tuned to NASA TV or follow @NASA or @SpaceX on Twitter for up to the minute information on Dragon's whereabouts. 

UPDATE:  NASA added another piece of the timeline this afternoon via its space station website -- astronauts will detach Dragon from the Harmony module using Canadarm2 at 4:05 am ET tomorrow (May 31).  A list of the key events that we've discerned from NASA and SpaceX sources is available here, but all times are approximate and the best way to keep track is to follow the events as they unfold on NASA TV.

ORIGINAL STORY:  NASA and SpaceX provided more details today about tomorrow's return to Earth of the Dragon spacecraft, the first commercial spacecraft to visit the International Space Station (ISS).   Dragon will be released from ISS's Canadarm2 at approximately 09:35 GMT (5:35 am EDT, 4:35 am CDT) with splashdown in the Pacific five and a half hours later.

SpaceX Mission Manager John Couluris said at a NASA/Space-X press conference this morning that the weather looks excellent in the splashdown area 490 nautical miles (564 statute miles or 907 kilometers) southwest of Los Angeles.    American Marine will perform the recovery operations under contract to SpaceX.   Dragon will be brought by ship to the port of Los Angeles and then flown to McGregor Airport near Waco, TX and SpaceX's propulsion and structural test facilities.  

The ISS crew loaded Dragon with items to be returned to Earth and SpaceX plans to demonstrate an "early access" ability to return high priority cargo to NASA within 48 hours.  Standard cargo is to be returned within 14 days.   NASA flight director Holly Ridings said that there is no "critical" cargo on this mission since it is a test flight.  The hatch to Dragon was closed this morning.  The hatch to the Harmony module (Node 2) will be closed and the area between the hatches depressurized tomorrow morning.

This Dragon spacecraft will not be reused, Couluris said.   NASA has contracted for new Dragon spacecraft for each of its missions, he said, although Dragons are reusable.   This particular spacecraft "definitely" will be put on display for historical purposes, but other Dragon spacecraft could be refurbished and reflown for other customers.   One version, DragonLab, is capable of two years of autonomous operations in orbit, he added.

Couluris stressed that reentry, splashdown, and recovery operations are challenging and "we are not taking this lightly at all."  However, even if this final phase was not successful, in his opinion the rendezvous and berthing operations with ISS already make the mission overall a success.

Ridings explained that after Dragon is released from Canadarm2, it will make three engine burns -- two short, one long -- and move away from station.   That will take 10-11 minutes after which it will be out of the zone of integrated operations and back under SpaceX's control.   SpaceX will fire the engines again for the deorbit burn.   The recovery team is already enroute to the splashdown point and SpaceX anticipates it will take 2-3 days for the ships to return to port after they get Dragon aboard. 

NASA to Discuss Upcoming Launch of NuSTAR Black Hole Hunter Today

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-May-2012 (Updated: 30-May-2012 09:21 AM)

NASA is currently planning to launch the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) on June 13 from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific.  The agency will hold a news conference to discuss the launch at 1:00 pm ET today, May 30, 2012.

NuSTAR was designed by Dr. Fiona Harrison of CalTech to search for black holes.  It was scheduled for launch on March 22 aboard an Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Pegasus XL rocket, but was postponed when a Flight Readiness Review (FRR) concluded that more time was needed to ensure that a new flight computer would work properly.

Participants in today's press conference from NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC are:

  • Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington
  • Fiona Harrison, NuSTAR principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.
  • Daniel Stern, NuSTAR project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena 
  • Yunjin Kim, NuSTAR project manager at JPL

The press conference will be aired on NASA TV.

Dragon to Return on Thursday, NASA Plans Media Events Beginning Tomorrow - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-May-2012 (Updated: 30-May-2012 03:24 PM)

UPDATE:  At a press conference today (May 30), NASA Flight Director Holly Ridings said Dragon will be released from Canadarm2 at approximately 09:35 GMT tomorrow morning (5:35 am EDT, 4:35 am CDT), May 31.  It must first be detached from the Harmony module, but she did not specify the time for that event, saying only that the crew would be awakened at 04:00 GMT (midnight EDT, 11:00 pm May 30 CDT) and immediately get to work finalizing preparations for Dragon's departure. NASA TV coverage begins at 3:30 am EDT (07:30 GMT, 2:30 am CDT).  After release, Dragon will fire its engines three times to move away from the ISS, taking a total of 10-11 minutes.   SpaceX will resume control of Dragon thereafter and fire the engines again for a deorbit burn.  Splashdown in the Pacific Ocean 490 nautical miles southwest of Los Angeles is expected five and a half hours after Dragon is released. All times are approximate.

ORIGINAL STORY: Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are unloading more than 1,000 pounds of cargo delivered by SpaceX's Dragon spaceraft and reloading it with items to be returned to Earth.  Dragon is scheduled to unberth from the ISS early Thursday morning Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) and land in the Pacific Ocean.

NASA released details on planned coverage of the end of Dragon's test flight as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.  The flight has gone well so far, but the spacecraft must still return to Earth and be recovered before complete success can be claimed.

In an interview on NASA TV today, NASA's Lead Integration Systems Engineer for the Dragon test flight, Paul Brower, talked about some of the challenges that arose on Friday as Dragon approached the ISS.  Remarking that unexpected situations develop whenever a new vehicle visits the ISS for the first time. Brower said that Dragon's computers locked up, some of its sensors went bad, and there were problems with some of its laser rangers and thermal imagers, while the ISS had problems with its GPS sensors.  Working together, however, NASA and SpaceX were able to resolve the problems.  Brower said SpaceX did a "phenomenal job," handling the problems "calmly."

NASA laid out its media events for the final stages of this test flight today.  Here is a recap:

  • Wednesday, May 30 (tomorrow)
    • 10:00 am EDT (9:00 am CDT), news briefing at Johnson Space Center with NASA Flight Director Holly Ridings and  SpaceX Mission Manager John Couluris
  • Thursday, May 31
    • 3:30 am EDT (2:30 am CDT) -- NASA TV live coverage begins
    • 6:10 am EDT (5:10 am CDT), time approximate -- Dragon unberths from ISS
    • 10:15 am EDT (9:15 am CDT) -- NASA TV coverage resumes for deorbit and splashdown 
    • 11:44 am EDT (10:44 am CDT) -- splashdown (NASA says it will be hundreds of miles off the west coast of the United States "likely out of range of live television")
    • 2:00 pm EDT (1:00 pm CDT) -- NASA/SpaceX news briefing

Dragon is the first commercially-owned spacecraft to deliver cargo to the ISS.   It was launched on May 22 and berthed to the ISS on May 25.  Berthing means that the astronauts on the ISS grappled Dragon with the robotic Canadarm2 and "installed" it onto a docking port.  Dragon cannot dock with the space station by itself.  It will depart from the ISS the same way, with astronauts using Canadarm2 to release the spacecraft, which will then fire its engines to descend through the atmosphere and land in the ocean.

 

Events of Interest


 

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